Arizona's New School Data System In Peril With Zero Dollars In State Budget

By Casey Kuhn, Mariana Dale
Published: Tuesday, February 7, 2017 - 8:39am
Updated: Tuesday, May 16, 2017 - 6:37pm

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A third-grade class at Shumway Elementary School in Chandler starts off with morning announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance.

While the kids file in, teacher Dana Warnick ticks off boxes on her digital roster.

“I go to the computer, and I click if they’re here, and I click if they’re not,” Warnick said.

Arizona public-school funding is largely dependent on how many students show up in classrooms such as Warnick’s each day.

Each click will eventually correspond to a dollar amount the school gets for that student. Schools get a pre-determined payment based on average daily membership.

The state has invested $38 million into a new database, AzEDS, to make keeping track of those students easier and more accurate.

That progress is at risk of coming to a grinding halt.

kids in class at Shumway Elementary
(Photo by Mariana Dale - KJZZ)
If a student has already called in sick, Ms. Warnick can see it on her digital roster and knows not to look for them.

The governor’s budget proposal has no money for information technology in the Arizona Department of Education.

The department faces an uphill battle to manage the $5 billion set aside for public schools every year.
‘A Major Milestone'

Frank Fletcher helps manage student information in the state’s third-largest school district. The Chandler Unified School District has an enrollment of about 45,000 students.

From where he sits as Associate Superintendent for Support Services, the per-pupil funding formula is more complicated than the click of a mouse.

There’s a host of factors that could change how much money the state pays out, including whether a student requires special-education services or is learning English as a second language.

And then there’s human error.

“Is there an alphanumeric field that somebody just put something in that goes into the system and the system goes, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, what is this?’” Fletcher asked.

Chandler’s student-information system, and that of every other public district and charter in the state, feeds the AzEDs database.

Each district uses one of 13 vendors to run its student-information system.

“What I found was a system that, to say the least, was dysfunctional. In fact, to say the best it was dysfunctional,” said Mark Masterson, the state Education Department’s chief information officer.

Masterson came to the department in 2011, not long after a study from the Arizona Office of Economic Recovery found that the state’s system was available only 50 percent of the time and hadn’t completed student counts on time for more than a decade.The Arizona Department of Education relied on “unsupported, antiquated hardware and software.”

Masterson helped start the first overhaul of the system.

“We worked for two years with districts and held their hands, to make sure they were comfortable,” Masterson said.

If the old system was a dirt road, the new one is like a superhighway.

It pulls student data from districts daily, and schools can view their numbers in real time, instead of waiting for monthly updates.

“While the concept is simple, the implementation has been complex,” said Stefan Swiat, a spokesman for the department.

A performance review from an evaluator was released in October and called the AzEDS system “a major milestone and accomplishment.”

The Chandler district was one of the first to pilot the new system, in fall 2015.

“We have a high degree of confidence in the system as it is currently,” Fletcher said.

Growing Pains

Not every district has had the same experience.

In dozens of smaller districts, like the Buckeye Union High School District, when AzEDS was rolled out in tandem with the old system, school officials said their student counts were skewed.

“All of a sudden there were just hundreds of students that were failing integrity, and if you fail integrity it means they’re not counting,” Patsi Fridrich said. She is the data director at Buckeye and has been inputting student counts for 10 years.

“I like my data to be right,” she said. “I like it to be correct and accurate.”

She said the school’s average daily membership, the base number to calculate student funding, was off by 100 to 200 students in the 2015-2016 school year.

kids walk outside at Shumway Leadership Academy
(Photo by Mariana Dale - KJZZ)
While the concept is simple, the implementation has been complex," said ADE spokesman Stefan Swiat of the new statewide student data program.

In addition to determining funding, school districts also use student information to plan for the future.

“We just don’t know what our numbers are, and that’s been frustrating,” Associate Superintendent Jeff Simmons said. He estimates the district is growing 3 to 4 percent each year. 

Fridrich and Simmons said the numbers have been more accurate this school year, but they’re not 100 percent confident yet.

“Behind the scenes, everybody's after the right mission, the right goal, but we’re not there yet,” Simmons said.

Essential Funding

Dianne Smith with the Greater Phoenix Educational Management Council works with districts such as Buckeye that are having difficulties, and she makes sure their concerns don’t go unnoticed. Her role is to make sure elected officials hear administrator’s concerns.

“Let’s face it, a data system isn’t sexy,” Smith said.

It may not be sexy, but school administrators say it’s crucial to keeping schools funded and teachers paid.

“It’s easy to say we want money in the classroom,” Smith said. “But if we don’t have a data system that is functional, the rest of those issues aren’t successful, either.”

The Arizona Department of Education requested $17.6 million for its information-technology division to continue developing and maintaining AzEDS.

The governor’s proposed budget includes zero dollars for IT.

And that means no payments, which could mean no raises for teachers and no money for school updates. The state would no longer be able to access student data.

“I would say we are in disaster mode,” Masterson said. “If the current budget goes through, then there will not be any payments.”

school data infographicEDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to clarify how AzEDS was rolled out in smaller districts.

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